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Chapter 2 : two.
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Astoria liked a good and windy day; preferably sleeting, wet, soggy, dirty with snow. Her hair came into good use on those days, acting the halo, a mist of curls, a sea of simple matter.
It was that kind of day on the day that somebody told her she had lied when she said she lost her family to the war. “I’m not lying,” she said earnestly, pulling her scarf from around her chapped mouth. “I did lose them. They’re still alive, but I lost them to the war.”
She couldn’t stop thinking about the expression there on that woman’s face; there was the self-satisfied smirk of the woman convinced of her own moral superiority, but Astoria couldn’t help noticing her forehead and the lines around her mouth were telling a more curious story, one that wanted to hit at the humanity of another person’s history but was at a loss of how was the best way. It wasn’t an unusual expression; everybody wore it at some point, encountering another person with a little bit of explaining to do.
She kept wondering how often she wore that expression. How often did she allow herself to plant in the exploration of another person’s character? She’d not often thought about love; it had seemed too stationary; but a married woman would probably know, and that flash of light from the bartender’s left hand had not been an illusion; but could an answer that wasn’t an answer exist in something that everybody was chasing? It was hard to imagine that there was a real explanation for anything when she examined the idea that the end-all was nothing but something you could make through a gentle probing. A wondering. An insatiable movement.
It was the season for keeping jobs, but somebody lost his and came into the bar one day. He looked like a frown, a slip of an expression shaped as a willowy bow. Astoria had never harbored a pressing desire to be close to another person, but he looked as though he could use the warmth, a bit of tenacity, a little bit of spirit.
He needed a drink.
“Firewhisky,” she whispered to the bartender. She learned that day the woman’s name was Hannah.
Astoria held the drink tightly, suddenly nervous. Her hand looked like a limp and feeble thing, a fish perhaps, a fish lost in a world of air. It was gulping at a gesture, utterly flimsy, and Astoria realized that she was becoming shy.
She recognized him; everybody did, it wasn’t anything special to understand that a chin as sloped as his belonged to a Malfoy. She knew his eyes were grey even though they were hidden from her, his face angled towards the fire, sitting, alone, in a seat at a table away from the bar. With no information available about how to approach a member of that family she decided to pretend she did not know who he was; thinking maybe he might even appreciate it.
It was a slow approach, the kind of slow that precedes an earnest action kept hidden. Closer, Astoria could see that he hadn’t shaved for a while and his hair at the ends was beginning to fray. The sleeves of his coat were dutifully patched, but to an eye like Astoria’s, wont to see things that didn’t fit, it was clear that it had seen more than its share of wear. Her heart gave a weird beat, and her feet moved to retreat her from his proximity. She couldn’t get nearer to him than she was at this moment; there was a crackling in the air between them, a discomfort that, for the moment, she couldn’t protest.
He never ordered anything. Astoria never drank that whisky. It sat, a small amber pool of warmth before her, taunting and mysterious, reflective of a face devoid of lines.
She buried herself in the study of other things, namely human anatomy. It was silly that Hogwarts would teach you things like where to spray a Doxy with Doxycide so that you’d avoid a poisonous bite, but they didn’t teach you things about your own self. How was it that in a world so steeped in ancient tradition that the study of more human things was beyond their reach?
It wasn’t that she was dying for an escape into the Muggle world, but it just happened that Muggle libraries were better stocked for her purposes. Astoria patterned her time between the Leaky and the library, which kept her warm and her mind occupied. Any fleeting plans for running off into a distant plain had disappeared as soon as she had realized that she had probably been missing the point for most of her life--places were nothing next to people and she didn’t understand how to act in a crowd, or how not to step on people’s feet, or how to be anything but ambiguous to strangers. She would rend herself before an open landscape but before another beating heart she clapped up, clammed up quicker than she could ever move towards that perpetual free-fall she desired.
To hear a married woman say that what she was looking for was part of somebody else; inside somebody else and separate, too; it was too much to understand at first but gradually took a toll. I’m looking for something that I don’t understand at all, Astoria would think crunching through snow on the way to the bookstore, or the library, or the pub. I’m looking for something I mostly ignore.
It was too much to take at some moments; that everything her life had been pointing towards had failed her and that by seeking to escape that crumbled bastion of her past she had failed herself. How was one to make it in this life? With no knowledge of what one oneself needed, or what the future held, or that one’s parents could be utterly and unmistakably wrong. Her blood rushed through her ears as everything threatened to eat her--buildings looked like mouths ready to suck her in. She escaped into the Leaky Cauldron, her heart slamming against her ribs, and took her regular, well-worn seat at the bar. Hannah passed her a butterbeer and Astoria sat there for a while, holding it in her hands and thanking whatever gods she had that she had made it here, and made it here very much alive.
By the time she found it within her to pop the cork on her drink it was nearing a tepid degree, but it was the routine of it that was thrilling. At any time I could say I’m not going to drink any more, I’m not going to come here again, I’m giving up on anatomy and spark plugs and trains. She knew she couldn’t really leave, or find something else, or live in that restlessness she’d wanted months ago. She couldn’t feel it all the time, that pulsing and steady position at breaking point that she’d felt in the headmaster’s office. She couldn’t leave it all behind all the time; she’d float away. Astoria was liking it here. As small as her life was she was a part of it; so much that the world wanted her all for its self, all for its own.
It was a good feeling. Astoria found herself grinning into a page of her sketchbook. She’d moved from limbs to the torso to the finer attributes of the human body quickly, devouring the textbooks she found wherever she found them. It was lucky, she thought, that her family was not good at understanding what a disinheritance meant; that they thought it meant send her away with half the estate burning a hole in her pocket, and not leave her destitute, with nothing, a wandering vagabond. She was glad her parents had never thought to study language, that they were too noble to bother with defining words. They knew a situation and what words were appropriate and that, they knew, was enough.
It was enough for Astoria, too. More than enough. She was living comfortably in a Hogsmeade flat, although considering integrating into a Muggle kind of society soon enough. It could be that kind of on-edge stuff she'd been wanting, being out of place, an eyesore in a slick sea of people who all knew what they were doing, who they were, where they were going.
“You’ve been watching me,” a deep voice behind her mentioned. Astoria felt a ripple pass through her spine as she turned, holding her sketchbook down, to face that pointed chin and warm grey eyes.
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